Summer 2017: I am seeing people having loads of fun with the new Swedish hotness. Yes folks, it’s not been that long since the Swedish invasion of quality gaming. I mull over the game, wondering whether I can be bothered with a game that leans so heavily on it’s lore and background. I ponder for a while and then, in a moment of spending madness plop down nearly £40 on a whim.
October 2017: I convince the Thursday night gang to try the ‘back of the book’ introductory adventure – The Promised Land. A nice ‘burning platform’ scenario that really drills down the ‘grimdark’ and deadly nature of the setting. Four lonely travellers scramble their way to Ambria, fleeing the destruction of the Dark Lords.
October 2020: We settle down on Google Meet (Damn you Covid!) for the final session – three years on. We have played through The Promised Land, The Copper Crown, The Wrath of the Warden, The Witch Hammer, The Darkest Star and the Mother of Darkness. Standing at the gates of the Throne of Thorns itself, the fate of Ambria lay on our ‘heroes’ hands. It was the end of a three year epic – a saga, as one of the players called it – and the end of an amazing gaming journey.
Remarkably, this campaign should never have worked. I have no problem with long campaigns, but I have in the distant past been a vociferous cynic about these ‘epic’ campaigns built out of books (and really, I was never a fan of pre-written adventures) and I was doubly dubious of games with a huge weight of lore to absorb. This was both! It’s a testament to the quality of that background and the really engaging story that unfolds through the game that I was able to keep the enthusiasm going throughout the campaign.
The story starts simply but quickly begins to develop as more and more factions are introduced and their plots begin to develop. There’s always something going on, someone double-crossing someone else and someone or something popping up where you least expect it. The world never stands still and if the players do it will simply flow around and over them. The players have to keep up and keep moving, choosing their allies carefully and knowing when to distance themselves from a dead cause. There are some amazing levels of reincorporation, with recurring characters and plot-lines built into the game – and copious notes about what to do if that character has met an untimely demise.
The characters make most games and it was no different here. We started with Iago, a quiet monk fleeing his gardens and not quite sure of his own piety. Lupino, the bastard son of a noble and a barbarian and very much a mercenary warrior. Malliano, Lupino’s half brother and a retired Panzer knight. Vikomer, a hunter of witches and ranger in the mountains. They were joined by Gariel, a wandering barbarian changeling witch.
In the end Iago walked off into the mountains, having risen in the Church of Prios, drifted to the Young Gods and the Spiders and finally converted totally to the Church of [redacted] Prios. Lupino is a landed noble under Duke Ynedar, recovering his family name in the process. Gariel became the Keeper of his tribe and the watcher on the borders of Symbar. Vikomer left the group to walk into the Davokar and join the Iron Pact, only to be brought down by [redacted] and crucified on the borders of Thistle Hold as a warning to those that seek the embrace of the darkness. Malliano retired and attempted to found a family house in the bright Davokar, only to be taken by the Spiders and married to [redacted], dying in the arms of his brother in the shadow of Symbar.
Each character grew and developed and sadly, that development also involved the rules of the game – something that became a real sticking point for the campaign. I loved running this campaign, but some of the rules left me grating my teeth with rage because I suspect there wasn’t a lot of high level playtesting with people who were playing hard. As an example, I’ll talk about Maltransformation, a classic ‘turn someone into a frog’ spell. Any mystic worth their salt will have boosted their Resolute, and taken some other traits that minimise the Corruption they take from spells. Cool eh?
Well, no. At Master level, this chains, so the Mystic just has to make a Resolute-Resolute test and the enemy is a frog. And then onto the next one. And the next one. And the next. Probability can sometimes kick in and break the chain, but often times, no. Moreover, they STAY transformed as long as the Mystic can make a Res vs Res test at the start of THEIR turn. What happens if the creature manages to take their form again? The Mystic casts Maltransformation again and it’s Frog-Town – population YOU. (OK, before someone complains, yes, I know it says mammal or reptile, but seriously, get a life. They get turned into a mole or whatever)
The real problem is that this happens to ANYTHING. There is nothing in the rules that I could see that means that anything is immune, so everything is potentially transformable. ANYTHING. This means that it can trivialise encounters that could be challenging. Enemies have to either (a) have high Quick to strike with THEIR Maltransformation (or Bend Will…) first, (b) have stonkingly high Resolutions, (c) have at least Steadfast II or (d) have someone hidden with Anathema who doesn’t get transformed themselves. Nonsense.
That, however, is a technical matter – the good of the campaign massively outweighs the bad. As I get older, the old ‘time poor, money rich’ thing is really starting to hit home, and these campaign books exemplified this. I happily plopped down £70 for two or three Kickstarters (I forget) and hunted down all of the other adventure books and various bits and bobs. All told I reckon I spent around £300 for the campaign over the three years and it was an absolute bargain. So much value, so many great memories and so much good stuff to play with.
In a more reflective moment, that issue of age does come into it. I often wonder, if I had told 12 year old Neil, that 50 year old Neil would still be playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ he would have believed it? I still wonder when I’ll stop gaming, or whether I ever will. What I am painfully aware of is that as we all age, it becomes more difficult to get the commitment needed to play regularly. Life has a way of intervening. Will I ever get the chance to run a long campaign like this again? I doubt it. Three years is the longest campaign I have been involved in since I started gaming and I doubt I’ll ‘beat’ it. ‘
And so we say goodbye to Ambria. Goodbye to the little alchemists-cum-blacksmith on Black Chemists Corner in Thistle Hold, with it’s rag-tag staff of orphaned goblins. Goodbye to the orphan Anja and her gang of street thieves. Goodbye to the inns of Toad Square. Goodbye to Colin the Collossi, Mr Snuffles the Spider Familiar and Albie (after Albie Fiore) the Patron Saint. Goodbye to Yeleta and Tharaban and RIP to Elmendra and Marvello. Farewell to the nobles of Yndaros, the bedchambers of the Duchess Esmerelda and the steam baths of the local gangsters. To Barthelom of the Ordo, Argasto the merchant, Sarvola, Aluin, Deseba and all of the others.
Will I ever return to Symbaroum? Probably not – I’m not someone to go back when I can move forward. I will however, never forget our journey across the mountains, into the Davokar and to the very Throne of Thorns itself!